Fools and Cowards

This post is part of a special feature on military learning co-hosted with the Wavell Room, a blog & forum for discussions about contemporary British military thought.


Sqn Ldr Andy Netherwood joined the RAF as a pilot in 1993 and completed tours flying the C130 and C17 as well as staff tours in Strategy Policy & Plans and Capability Development. He is currently serving as a member of the Directing Staff on the Royal Naval Division of the UK Defence Academy. You can follow him on Twitter at @TameCrab

The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.

– Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.

The Thucydides quote above is often heard at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), presumably as an encouragement for students to become warrior-scholars rather than remaining ‘fools’ who outsource their thinking to ‘cowards’.  Having spent the past two years as a member of the military Directing Staff (DS) (or fool) working with members of the KCL Defence Studies Department (DSD) I wanted to reflect on that experience and the roles of DS and DSD. What does each contribute to military learning and could the way we work together be improved to deliver more effective military learning?  These reflections derive from my experience on the staff of the Intermediate Faculty which prepares officers for command and staff appointments at SO2 (Lt Cdr, Maj, Sqn Ldr) level.  I will leave it to others more qualified to judge how generalisable they are to the advanced and higher courses.

Peter Foot, a former Deputy Dean at the JSCSC describes three kinds of staff college, each named for the conflict that prompted them.  Put simply, the ‘Jena’ model assumes military officers are best taught by military officers, topped up with lectures from visiting academics; the ‘Falklands’ model is ‘Jena’ plus opportunities for some to pursue a post-graduate degree; The ‘Kosovo’ model involves ‘high-quality military staff working alongside embedded academic staff’[1].  The latter model is the one employed at the JSCSC with Thucydides’ ‘fools’ and ‘cowards’ working side by side.  Although we are too polite to use those terms, the sentiment behind them lingers amongst some: the DS are just there to deliver the training which is a necessary addition to the syllabus to remind students they are at a military establishment[2].  The academics meanwhile are there to deliver ‘pure’ education.  However, their contribution – so the trope goes – must be qualified by the fact they ‘have never carried a rifle’. This division of responsibility also means the relative roles of DS and DSD becomes conflated with an equally contentious debate over the relative importance of training and education.  Training in this context is described as the acquisition of command and staff skills which can only be imparted by a subject matter expert: a military officer who has command and staff experience.  Similarly, education is the acquisition of critical thinking skills which can only be imparted by an academic.

I want to suggest a more nuanced understanding of what DS and DSD contribute to military learning.  First the ‘cowards’. Dr David Morgan-Owen and Dr Aimee Fox wrote an excellent rebuttal to Allan Mallinson’s ‘no experience of soldiering’ assertion in the Wavell Room here. I’d add two additional points.  First, some academics have ‘held a rifle in their hands’ and, more importantly, all have relevant experience.  This experience includes (but is not limited to) leadership and followership within diverse teams (usually more diverse than those in the military) as well as written and verbal communication skills.  I would argue their contribution should not be limited to the conceptual and they should be encouraged to contribute to experiential training.

What of the ‘fools’?  Some of them are actually quite well educated.  Many have post-graduate degrees, more than one of my colleagues are undertaking PhDs. Indeed, one of the benefits of working alongside the KCL DSD is the advice and encouragement they provide to those who wish to engage further with academic study. Second, the purpose of education is to teach officers how to grapple with complex problems and deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. Any military staff who have served in staff appointments or on operations in the past ten years will be familiar with uncertainty and ambiguity and will have learnt from the experience.  This enables them to contextualise and reinforce the benefits provided by education.  Military DS can contribute more than training. Whilst considering the military contribution, it’s important to acknowledge that this does not come just from the DS. The students arrive with considerable experience and knowledge.  There is rightly an emphasis on peer to peer learning and they have much to offer those who are willing to listen.

Academia does itself no favours when it ‘addresses militaries with an air of intellectual superiority and detachment’ as Admiral Goldrick put it at the 2017 McMullen Naval History Symposium.  As with many tribes, academia can appear unapproachable to outsiders and getting your ideas published is a tortuous process for natives of the academic world never mind outsiders. For this reason, initiatives like the Wavell Room are extremely valuable.  They provide an accessible forum for people who wouldn’t think to approach a traditional journal.  They, and other similar sites, are playing an important role in the democratisation of military learning.  This has led to a richer discussion of contemporary security issues fed by a proliferation of ideas shared by civilians and military on blogs and social media.  Not only has this democratisation of learning broken down barriers between academic and practitioner but also between ranks within the military.  Sharing ideas is being seen less as the sole domain of the Advanced Command and Staff Course cohort.  However, there is still much more to do here, particularly in empowering non-commissioned ranks to get involved.  Social media and blogs provide an accessible entry point to military learning and their success is a welcome trend.  In this context, I’m grateful to Dr David Morgan-Owen for inviting me to write this article for Defence in Depth and hope it is the beginning of another trend which sees contributions invited from practitioners as well as academics, and from junior courses as well as the senior ones.

Returning to the Thucydides quote I opened with, my experience does not support the characterisation of warriors as fools or scholars as cowards.  However, I have found that military learning flourishes when distinctions are blurred. Not just distinctions between the roles of civilian and military, but also the value of contributions between juniors and seniors within the military.  Even if the military is institutionally incapable of removing these distinctions within the context of formal learning, they are disappearing in the context of informal learning thanks to social media and the proliferation of sites like the Wavell Room.  This is a welcome development in military learning.


[1]Foot, P. 2002, European Education Today, p. 200: in Kennedy, Gregory C., and Keith Neilson. Military Education: Past, Present, and Future. Westport (Connecticut): Praeger, 2002.

[2]Kennedy, Gregory C., and Keith Neilson. Military Education: Past, Present, and Future. Westport (Connecticut): Praeger, 2002.

Image: An interior shot of the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, via flickr

One thought on “Fools and Cowards

  1. Andy Netherwood and fellow followers of the military education blogs will surely be familiar with “The Science of War,” by Col. G.F.R. Henderson CB, London, 1933? This collection of the Colonel’s essays and lectures delivered between 1891-1903 was edited by Col. Neill Malcolm DSO, (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) and contains memoir of the author by Field Marshall Earl Roberts VC. Stifling moans and groans, perhaps it might be worth taking another careful look at the texts extrapolating from the ways in which Col.Malcolm and FM Roberts appreciated Henderson’s approach and attitudes to change. Just a thought, Georgina Natzio Defence Writer, (Ret’d?)


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